Searching for the perfect present for the reader in your family? Or maybe it’s time for some self-gifting (we won’t judge, we promise). From essays to young adult novels to photography and poetry, The Undefeated has you covered. Here’s a collection of some of the most intriguing, well-crafted and engaging books of 2018.
The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (YA)
Don’t believe anyone who tells you slam poetry is dead, because they clearly missed the memo about Elizabeth Acevedo, an award-winning, fire-spitting Afro-Latino poet who has penned an entire novel in verse. Acevedo won the National Book Award for young people’s literature with a coming of age story about Xiomara Batista. Xiomara lives in Harlem, and as she begins to form her own opinions — about religion, about street harassment, about what it means to become a woman — she collects her thoughts in verse and finds a home in her school’s slam poetry club.
Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi (YA)
If you find yourself hooked after reading Tomi Adeyemi’s debut fantasy novel, fear not. She’s got two more coming, all about strong-willed Zélie Adebola and her adventures as she tries to bring magic back to her fictive country of Orïsha, where power has been consolidated by an evil, magic-hating king. The stakes are high: If Zélie fails, Orïsha will lose its magic forever. There’s no shortage of black fantasy fans (remember when Buzzfeed imagined if Hogwarts were an HBCU?), and now young readers have another set of books to add to their collections, right alongside Harry Potter, Shadowshaper and the Bartimaeus trilogy. Adeyemi weaves a story that tackles colorism, class and racism with West African mythology and Yoruba traditions.
My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
Oyinkan Braithwaite’s debut novel crackles with dark humor as she traces the story of sibling rivalry between Nigerian good girl Korede and her maybe-sociopath murderer of a sister, Ayoola. Ayoola’s boyfriends keep turning up dead, and poor, put-upon Korede keeps finding ways to keep her sister free. That is, until Korede’s crush expresses an interest in her sister and Korede is faced with a choice.
A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley
Jamel Brinkley’s debut collection of nine short stories is a meditation on modern masculinity, told from the perspectives of various black men in New York, mostly in the Bronx and Brooklyn. The National Book Award finalist focuses on how ideas about what it means to be a man are passed down through generations, and what it takes to define oneself as notions about sex and gender continue to evolve.
The Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard
Ladee Hubbard has introduced a new framework for thinking about W.E.B. Du Bois, the Talented Tenth and obligations to fellow black people in struggle against white supremacy: a fantastical crime novel about a black family with ridiculously random superpowers (one of the Ribkins can see colors that remain obscured to others, while another can scale walls like a spider). The protagonist is 72-year-old Johnny, who has gotten himself in way too deep with a mobster. The Talented Ribkins, which won the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for debut fiction, is an inventive layer cake of humor, intrigue and insights about race.
Dread Nation by Justina Ireland (YA)
Remember the head-scratching reaction you had the first time you heard about Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter? Well, get over it, because literature about a Civil War-era America complicated by the existence of the undead is most definitely a thing. Enter Jane McKeene, the protagonist of Justina Ireland’s bone-chilling account of an America in which the many who died at Gettysburg became, well, not so dead. Jane has been sent to Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, where she learns how to wield a scythe, which is definitely a subversive take on the real-life Miss Porter’s, where women like Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis learned to be the sort of woman who knows when and how to use an asparagus server. In this America, black and Native people are still doing the bidding of power-wielding whites, except now that bidding includes slaying zombies. Just imagine the troubles that can arise when an entire underclass of people is armed with very sharp weapons.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
Tayari Jones, whose novel made this year’s National Book Award long list, trains her lens on the very personal implications of unjust policing and mass incarceration. Her leading lady, Celestial, is married to a man who has been wrongfully imprisoned. While both Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing and American Marriage examine the implications of what it means to be a black woman with a partner imprisoned in the American South, the avenues they take vary wildly. Ward’s focus is on the poor, while Jones takes a look at what imprisonment means for a well-to-do middle-class couple who never envisioned this life for themselves, and the romantic compromise Celestial makes in order to cope.
Wild Beauty by Ntozake Shange
A collection of poems old and new, in English and Spanish, Wild Beauty is the last published work of the late poet, dancer and playwright. Ntozake Shange died in October at 70. She’d suffered a series of strokes in 2004, but as she recovered, she kept writing. Wild Beauty offers one last bittersweet opportunity to connect with an American treasure.
Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires
The theme that unites Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ debut short story collection is one with which many black Americans can identify: being The Only. As in, The Only Black Kid in Private School, or The Only Black Professor, or The Only Black Woman in Yoga Class. In this collection, which made this year’s National Book Award long list, Thompson-Spires conducts a narrative thought experiment, illustrating the world as it’s processed through a variety of Onlys who are carrying around the burden of being representatives for an entire race of people. Lest you think Thompson-Spires has gone too far, never forget the existence of an embarrassingly uncomfortable real-life account of a white woman who projected all of her insecurities onto the only black woman in her yoga class, and then wrote an essay about it. In the world of Thomson-Spires’ characters, readers are encouraged to think about the world from the perspective of The Only, and not the voyeur.
Becoming Kareem: Growing Up On and Off the Court by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld
Anyone who’s enjoyed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s foray into cultural criticism as a contributor to The Hollywood Reporter knows that his brain is brimming with trenchant observations. Becoming Kareem offers much of the same, though instead of looking at the entertainment industry, Abdul-Jabbar turns inward to explain his evolution as an athlete, activist and thinker. It’s a worthy addition for anyone who wants an insider’s account of processing where you fit when you’re young, black and blazingly talented and your country is erupting with change.
American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment by Shane Bauer
Shane Bauer, a journalist for Mother Jones, famously spent four months working undercover as a guard in a private prison in Winnfield, Louisiana. Bauer elaborates on his experiences in Winnfield and shapes them with historical context to explain how we arrived at mass incarceration as we currently know it. Bauer shines much-needed sunlight on a crisis that readers of The New Jim Crow and watchers of 13th will find familiar: a system profiting off the warehousing and mistreatment of millions of Americans, a disproportionate number of whom are black and brown.
Things That Make White People Uncomfortable by Michael Bennett and Dave Zirin
If you’re an athlete writing about the intersection of sports, social issues and race, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more well-suited co-author than Dave Zirin, the sports columnist at The Nation. Here, the Philadelphia Eagles defensive lineman melds the personal with the political — one chapter is called “The NCAA Will Give You PTSD.” The through line is a commitment to standing up for the little guy, even when the little guy happens to be 250-plus pounds. It’s a stirring and smart trip through Michael Bennett’s musings on race and power.
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin DiAngelo
There’s no time in American history when this book hasn’t been needed, but, boy, is it ever timely now. Robin DiAngelo’s explanations for why we’re so stymied when it comes to discussing race is refreshing, fact-based and patient. While it’s a book that contains helpful information for everyone, White Fragility is an ideal starting place for white people who want to be allies in anti-racism but feel intimidated about where to begin.
Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves edited by Glory Edim
The founder of the popular Brooklyn, New York-based book club (now in its third year of existence) has released a book of essays written by literary luminaries including Jesmyn Ward, Lynn Nottage, Jacqueline Woodson, Rebecca Walker and Barbara Smith. Every woman answers the question: When did you first see yourself in literature? Thanks to Glory Edim’s work, black women and girls have a reliable space online, and in print, where they know they’ll always be seen.
The Revolt of the Black Athlete by Harry Edwards
If there’s a book that synthesizes and gives historical context to the wave of social activism that’s swept through modern sports, it’s this one. First published in 1968, it has been resurrected, with a new introduction and afterword for a 50th anniversary edition. Harry Edwards traces the history of black athletes from Emancipation onward, explaining how race has always influenced how black athletes have been received and even used in the U.S. government’s efforts at soft power diplomacy overseas. Through Edwards’ eyes, we see the awakening of black athletes to their own power not as a surprise but as an inevitability.
Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig
Jonathan Eig conducted more than 500 interviews to report this comprehensive tome on the life of The Champ, and he writes with as much style and verve as Muhammad Ali brought to the ring. Eig provides sweeping context for Ali’s participation in and significance to social movements, from the fight for civil rights to protests against the Vietnam War. Rather than shy away from Ali’s internal contradictions, Eig runs at them head-on, which makes Ali more compelling than any of the more hagiographic attempts to capture his life. Ali is the winner of the 2018 PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing. (Disclosure: Eig has also contributed to The Undefeated.)
How to Be Less Stupid About Race: On Racism, White Supremacy, and the Racial Divide by Crystal M. Fleming
You may know sociologist Crystal Fleming from her flame-throwing Twitter feed. In her second book, the Stony Brook University professor tackles an obstacle that hampers a lot of writing about race in America: moving past Race 101. Because our country isn’t operating from an agreed-upon foundation of established historical facts — for instance, every discussion of Confederate monuments must include a basic explanation of the Lost Cause and why it’s bunk. Therefore, our national discussions don’t move forward so much as stall on a treadmill powered by history textbooks that label enslaved Africans as “immigrants.” Fleming offers readers an easily digestible, well-researched primer, as well as a useful series of steps for “becoming racially literate.” In the words of Biggie: “If you don’t know, now you know.” No excuses!
There Will Be No Miracles Here by Casey Gerald
Moving up the class ladder isn’t an impossible feat, but it’s certainly a difficult one. In this memoir, Casey Gerald writes of growing up in Dallas with his sister and learning to survive on their mother’s disability checks. Football provided opportunities for Gerald; he played at Yale while studying political science. The same sport left his grandfather’s body broken. With elegant, captivating prose, Gerald traces a multigenerational story of race, class and privilege and what it means to grasp at limited opportunities for all they are worth, with one’s faith guiding the way.
This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America by Morgan Jerkins
If Lena Dunham is any indication, it’s almost never a good idea to label one person as the voice of a generation. However, Morgan Jerkins is definitely a voice, and she’s one worth taking seriously. In her debut essay collection, Jerkins tackles what it means to be living as a black woman in America today with an authoritativeness that’s rare and impressive for a woman with years to go before her 30th birthday. In bringing a relatable voice to discussing the alienation many black women encounter, both within the feminist movement and in society at large, Jerkins has announced herself as a vital social critic with plenty to say.
Heavy by Kiese Laymon
For anyone who misses Gawker and Kiese Laymon’s presence there, Heavy is a long-awaited essay collection from one of the country’s most thoughtful and incisive writers on race. In Heavy, Laymon contemplates his upbringing in Mississippi and his relationships with the women in his life, especially his mother and grandmother. The #MeToo movement has brought new visibility to the ubiquity of sexual abuse in our culture for women, but many male victims still grapple with shame when it comes to publicly discussing their experiences. Here, Laymon writes with elegance and fearlessness about his own experiences with sexual abuse and, in doing so, helps lift its taboo.
Becoming by Michelle Obama
The former FLOTUS created a storm with the initial wave of revelations contained in her memoir. Michelle Obama discusses the loneliness she felt after a miscarriage and reveals that her children were conceived with the assistance of in vitro fertilization. In doing so, she helps remove the stigma from episodes that occur in many women’s lives but remain taboo. Obama gained the trust of a nation by being charming, down-to-earth and candid. In Becoming, Obama takes advantage of an opportunity to fill in the many blanks of her life and open herself to those who felt they already knew her while making the case for why the Obamas are the ultimate American family.
Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry by Imani Perry
How is it possible that someone with as much name recognition as Lorraine Hansberry could also be considered a hidden figure? Well, because most of us never learned much about her aside from the fact that she wrote A Raisin in the Sun. Imani Perry gives Hansberry her due in this deeply researched biography, fleshing out her life as a writer, thinker and activist whose contributions to American society go far beyond one play. In Perry’s hands, Hansberry comes alive as self-possessed, nervy and extremely witty — a woman whose personal heroes included Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution, and Hannibal, the North African general.
Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop by Vikki Tobak
Contact High traces hip-hop’s evolution from 1979 to 2012 by giving readers a behind-the-scenes look at the industry through the contact sheets of the photographers documenting it. Not only does Vikki Tobak provide insight into what goes into a great image by providing the shots that normally remain unpublished, she’s also assembled compelling stories from some of hip-hop’s greatest voices, including RZA, Fab 5 Freddy, Questlove, Young Guru and DJ Premier. Contact High tells the stories of some of hip-hop’s most enduring images, from Jay-Z’s first photo shoot to the Stankonia album cover to XXL’s 1998 assemblage of talent for the photo A Great Day in Hip-Hop.
Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age by Donna Zuckerberg
Why should we be paying attention to how the classics are being discussed online? Because a significant segment of the population is, and they’re using their interpretations of texts such as Ovid’s Ars Amatoria, Xenophon’s Oeconomicus and Herodotus’ The Histories as the intellectual underpinnings for arguments about the supposed superiority of Western civilization, of whiteness and of men. Donna Zuckerberg explains how the alt-right, incels and other online communities are forming their own theories based on ancient texts. It’s impossible to bust myths about the classics if you’re unfamiliar with them or the arguments their interpreters are using as weapons. For those who haven’t thought about the ancient philosophers since high school Latin, Zuckerberg makes everything clear.
The Seattle Seahawks defensive end gave a powerful plea for justice and trust for Dear Black Athlete, a series of conversations featuring prominent African-American athletes, and civic and community leaders.
The stunning Jan. 15 New Yorker cover of Martin Luther King Jr. linking arms with athlete-activists Colin Kaepernick and Michael Bennett has elicited a lot of strong responses, including both thunderous praise and biting criticism. We asked the artist Mark Ulriksen, who has been a freelance illustrator for The New Yorker since 1994, to walk us through the making of the cover, and he shared his creative process with us, which included his sketches from conception to completion.
When we asked Ulriksen, who said the players carried out civil disobedience in the manner of King, what inspired him to marry the NFL players’ protest with that of King’s, he answered: “Would King be condoning this? I happen to think he would.”
Here at The Undefeated, we spent a trying 2017 attempting to cover the world through your eyes. We had the Colin Kaepernick saga on lock, the NFL protests covered. We learned from Timberwolves center Gorgui Dieng that “the biggest misconception is people thinking Muslims are terrorists.” We reveled at Whitley Gilbert’s wardrobe and watched Tarik Cohen shine at North Carolina A&T before he was a rookie standout with the Chicago Bears. We showed you chic street style at Afropunk, brought back Drumline and demonstrated that love knows no color. 2017 was a tough year, but TU brought it to you, warts and all.
Hey, 2017, we’d hate to miss you but love to watch you leave.
The Undefeated 44 most influential black Americans in history A collection of dreamers and doers, noisy geniuses and quiet innovators, record-breakers and symbols of pride and aspiration.
- 50 Greatest Black Athletes – The people spoke, and the results sparked some serious debate.
- UNC vs. Villanova: 13.5 seconds oral history – “Jenkins, for the championship!”
- Drumline oral history – “In order for me to get the additional $5 million, I had to create a white character.”
- New Edition oral history – “That’s when I said, ‘I don’t know why Johnny’s here.’ ”
- The NFL’s racial divide – “I have a chip on my shoulder at all times. I’m constantly trying to prove myself.”
- The NBA rookie style quiz – Forget your jump shots, newbie. It’s time to get your design game on.
- CulturePlay 50 – From Cardi B to Samuel L. Jackson (and 48 more), we throw odd questions to the talented and famous every week.
- Seahawks’ Michael Bennett is an activist disguised as a football player – “Every day, a white quarterback throws the ball to a black receiver, but when it comes to Black Lives Matter issues, they won’t step up and be like, ‘There is an issue.’ ”
- Professional wrestler Booker T’s raw life – “It’s funny, you know, they love to say how wrestling is so fake and made-up. And the irony of the whole thing is, the best thing about my brother is his honesty.”
- The gentrification of college hoops – Most athletic scholarships are going to middle-class kids with college-educated parents, not to kids from poor families who need a scholarship to get anywhere close to a university campus.
- Frank Dowsing, Mississippi State’s first black football player, is almost unknown today – A state struggles to remember a racial pioneer — is it partly because of his sexuality?
- Deconstructing J.R. Smith – “He still teaches me so much stuff that I don’t know. His horizons are so broad and he’s so well-rounded in so many areas that I still learn so much from him when it comes to basketball or life in general or fatherhood.”
- How Colin Kaepernick became a cause for activists and civil rights group – “He’s a modern-day Rosa Parks and Muhammad Ali all in one.”
- Nick Blakely came so close to playing Division I football – then tragedy struck – “I’m not much of a traveler, but I would sure love to go to heaven one day.”
- Chargers’ Brandon Mebane: ‘You could just tell they didn’t want us there.’ – “They were probably surprised that we were African-Americans, and they bought into all the negative stereotypes.”
- Being Muslim in the NBA – “The biggest misconception was people thinking Muslims are terrorists. That’s the way they see me nowadays.”
- The Marsalis brothers jazzed up a basketball conversation with Thunder coach Billy Donovan and GM Sam Presti –“In a jazz band, it’s very similar to basketball because you can have musicians who can really play their instrument really well. But they don’t have an understanding of what their function is to make the group succeed.”
- Hawks’ DeAndre’ Bembry carries brother’s memory into second NBA season – “It was evident from the very beginning that that wasn’t DeAndre’s brother. That was DeAndre’s best friend.”
- Best NBA throwbacks of all time – The very best throwback jerseys for all 30 NBA teams
- Are we entering the end times for the NFL? – Professional basketball offers the NFL a blueprint for success: embrace the black culture of the majority of your players
- Why Floyd Mayweather can still box after beating women – “I don’t support men putting their hands on women. … I believe he put his hands on you once, he gonna do it again. And again and again and again and after.”
- Derrick Rose hates fame but still hopes to be an NBA champion – “I picked the profession I’m in, so there’s no way I could whine about it.”
- The NBA’s 50 greatest players list: The remix – “You know, those guys were all sons of b—-es to deal with on the court. I can’t believe you took some of them off.”
- Lonzo Ball wouldn’t make the NBA All-Rookie team the way he’s playing now – If the vote for the NBA All-Rookie first team were taken today, Ball might not be on it. Indeed, Ball has not been the best rookie on his team.
Whitley’s World “You can’t unsee A Different World. You’ve seen it, it’s kind of engraved in your psyche.”
- The color of love – Dirk Nowitzki opens up on his interracial marriage
- Jamie Foxx is the best to ever do it – Foxx — not Will Smith, not Dave Chappelle, not even Beyoncé — is the supreme entertainer of our era, and it’s time to recognize him as such.
- Jay-Z is dead – Love, betrayal, shame, survival: Jay-Z hits the ball out of the park with intensely personal album
- The night Biggie was murdered – We catch up with a few of the 1996–97 Los Angeles Lakers — Shaquille O’Neal, Nick Van Exel and Corie Blount — as well as L.A.’s own Baron Davis and Marcellus Wiley to discuss what it was like living in Los Angeles at the time of Biggie Smalls’ murder.
- Dave Chappelle’s ‘Juke Joint’ – An impromptu Chance the Rapper set, and a Snapchat-free zone made it a golden ticket
- A veteran black police officer teaches police how not to kill people – “I was born black. I’m going to die black. I’m a black man before I’m anything else. The fact that I’m a police officer is a job that I do. It’s an oath that I took.”
- Ibram Kendi, one of the nation’s leading scholars of racism, says education and love are not the answer – “Black neighborhoods are not more dangerous than white neighborhoods and neither are black people.”
- Serena Williams, with or without a baby, has always been a ‘real woman’ – For as long as she’s been in the public eye, Williams has been asserting her femininity because for just as long, it’s been under attack.
- If you truly knew what the N-word meant to our ancestors, you’d NEVER use it – The decision for black people to include it in their vocabulary, nonetheless, remains personal, and I reject the criticism of black folk who continue to wield it.
- The message to NFL players: Dance for us, but don’t kneel – You can Milly Rock, Juju on that Beat or fake play pingpong in the end zone. But we can’t abide you kneeling on the sidelines. Dance to your heart’s content, but you best not raise a fist in protest.
- The NFL protests got white people to argue with white people – I credit the NFL protests for nudging this sort of healthy intraracial dialogue among white folk.
Alabama State Honey Beez bring positive plus-size attitude to HBCU dance scene “Where one of us lacks, the other one will pick up. We’re plus-size girls and we still go through bullying in college. But we’re more confident now, so it’s not as bad. But we have a real sisterhood, and this is our home away from home. The Honey Beez took me all the way out of my shell, and I love it.”
- Caylin Newton with Jay Walker: A convo with two Howard QBs – There’s a Bison stampede going on in Washington, D.C., and Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton’s little brother is the main reason.
- For Tarik Cohen, his NFL dream has begun – “I’m going to get there. I’m telling you, I’m going to play.”
- We got the beat: HBCU Band Rankings, Undefeated style – Bands strive to put on their best performance every game, just like the football team.
- Female presidents are playing critical roles in the survival of HBCUs – “I was the bearer of bad news, but I provided the vision and strategy to move forward,” said Cynthia Warrick. “Some people even thanked me for being so transparent.”
NBA standout Serge Ibaka is a standout single father too “Since I was young I always dreamed of myself traveling, envisioned at least three, four kids, five. And then, I’m living my dream right now and something I always love to do, and it’s fun. It’s really changed my life. It’s changed everything about me. The way I think and the way I live my life. It changed everything.”
- Ray Allen talks about his passion for teaching others about the Holocaust – “For many years, it was almost like our country wouldn’t accept the bad things it did to black people. The oppression, the racism, just all the negative issues that we’ve dealt with as people, we’re still recovering.”
- Troy Mullins is long drive golf champion but she’s striving for the LPGA – “Black athletes and having to be the best in their sport just to be recognized, just to be out there. There’s something about us having to be No. 1 to be put in the spotlight, that we can’t be too mediocre. I’m working really hard to do my best in this sport. It’s tough.”
- Nazr Mohammed isn’t retired, just prepared for his next phase in life – “At the end of the day, knowing that you’re in a position that you can help others and you can give and the smiles that you put on people’s faces and the happiness that you bring to others — it makes me feel good.”
Leon Bridges sings his rendition of the national anthem The critically acclaimed soul singer explores the themes of the anthem, creating a beautiful rendition that feels like both a hymn and a benediction
- Eagles’ Torrey Smith on fatherhood and his dancing, Instagram-famous sons – The best thing about being a father, he says, is the responsibility he’s taken on to mold two little boys into “great young men.”
- Santana Moss on CTE fears – “I’m not ready to go.”
- Draft profile: De’Aaron Fox and his love for video games – “I really stay away from basketball games.”
- Dwyane Wade’s All-Star spades party – “My earliest memory of playing spades probably goes back to playing with my brothers, my dad, my stepmom, just sitting at the kitchen table, as a family, and they’re talking all kinds of junk.”
- NOLA Gotta Shine: Inside Jordan Brand’s space at All-Star Weekend – NBA All-Star Weekend in New Orleans was the place to see and be seen, and there’s no better place for sneakerheads than the Jordan Brand pop-up shop.
- The business behind Echo Fox, Rick Fox’s esports team – Vision Venture Partners Team, the private equity firm behind Echo Fox, is quietly reshaping esports.
- From ‘Moana’ to ‘Hamilton’ to ‘Dancing with the Stars’ winner: The rise of Jordan Fisher – Get a peek into a day in the life of this rising star.
Inside Afropunk “They’re just the ‘standard of beauty’ and here you can be what you want and THAT’S beauty.”
- Fred Whitfield and the Black Cowboys of Rodeo – The cowboy is an iconic American figure and in popular mythology almost always a white one.
- Star Wright and the Philadelphia Phantomz make a place for hard-hitting women – “We’re trying to say that women can do anything.”
- Howard Homecoming – in GIFs – It was lit
- At the Celebration Bowl, the drum majors led the way – For both Grambling and N.C. A&T, it was all about preparation, practice and precision.
The Plug It’s the debut of The Plug, hosted by Chiney Ogwumike, Kayla Johnson, Justin Tinsley and Tesfaye Negussie. In episode 1, the crew dives into current events, discuss LaVar Ball’s latest news, NFL social activism and more. Plus, hip-hop icons Jadakiss and Fabolous join.
- All Day – The Undefeated Podcast: Clinton Yates spent a day in New York profiling various parts of the culture, when news broke that a legend had died. After spending the morning with the creators of Jopwell, a startup helping students of color in the tech industry, the the afternoon with Nike for a new shoe release, he ends up in Queens to talk with a family friend and musician about the life and influence of Mobb Deep’s Prodigy.
- America’s Black History Museum: 9/20/16 – Jill Hudson, Justin Tinsley and Clinton Yates talk about the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the 86th Emmy Awards. Plus, Mike Wise discusses his story about Joe Paterno.
- Morning Roast – The gang is all together, talking national anthem protests, possible NFL players strike, potential renaming of Yawkey Way and latest Bachelor in Paradise drama.
- The Morning Roast & Live at NABJ – Clinton Yates is in for Bomani, and in hour three he is joined by Marc Spears and Myron Medcalf to discuss all the happenings at the National Association of Black Journalists convention.
- Rhoden Fellows: HBCU 468: 5/11/17 – Stephen A. Smith praised Isaiah Thomas’ compelling effort in the playoffs and explained Kevin Durant’s impact on Golden State. He also talked about attending a historically black university.
- O.J.: Made in America: 6/11/16 – Domonique Foxworth is joined by guests Jason Reid, Raina Kelley, Ezra Edelman, Sarah Spain and Carl Douglas as they take a look at O.J.: Made in America.
Officer Aundre Wright The Bridge Builder 3 years in uniform
“I hear something on the radio, I go. Ease the gap between black and white, between police and non-police. Show we’re human.”“I hear something on the radio, I go. Ease the gap between black and white, between police and non-police. Show we’re human.”
One Saturday this fall, as little black boys collided between chalked white lines, officer Aundre Wright mingled comfortably with the crowd at Willie Stargell Field. A swarm of uniformed police patrolled this youth football venue, where the talent and style on the field is challenged by the potential for danger off it.
A woman had been shot in the face outside a game earlier in the season, and Wright wore a bulletproof vest over his blue police uniform. But as he hugged and dapped parents and coaches, everyone recalled a younger Wright wearing the colors of the Garfield Gators or Homewood Bulldogs, ripping across the turf in a blur of speed and aggression.
The 29-year-old went on to play for the University of Pittsburgh before a torn knee ligament derailed his NFL dreams. He wasn’t on duty today, but he came on a mission to “spread love.” Since becoming a police officer three years ago amid the national outrage over police killings of unarmed African-Americans, Wright has waged a personal crusade to bridge the gap between black and blue.
That strained relationship is evident here in the Homewood neighborhood. This is one of the most deadly parts of Pittsburgh, a largely segregated city of 300,000 where blacks make up 20 percent of the population. The police department, which has about 900 officers, did not provide diversity statistics but has been trying to recruit more black officers. Asked about the police, spectators talk about being profiled and cops having bad attitudes for no reason. They mention Leon Ford, an unarmed black man who was paralyzed after being shot by an officer in a 2012 traffic stop. Metal detectors at the field entrance stand vigil to the violent Catch-22 of poor black life across America.
But the people here say Wright isn’t a regular cop — he’s “Dre” from the East Side. They know Dre’s mama. Their son or brother played against Dre the baller. They appreciate how Dre the cop treated their troublemaking cousin. They respect what Dre the man did when a 25-year-old mother of three was shot dead in her car outside the East Hills projects last year.
The murder of Myanne Hayes hurt Wright in a new way. Maybe because his reckoning of the gangster code says women aren’t supposed to be targeted, or because he had seen other men who threatened women walk free. Wright, who was off-duty when he got the news, drove to a Home Depot and bought some signboard and Sharpies. He parked his 2003 Camry on the corner of Wilner and East Hill Drive, not far from where Hayes’ body was found. Wearing civilian clothes, Wright inked out his feelings and placed three signs on his car:
I CARE STOP THE VIOLENCE STOP SHOOTING
He held a fourth sign aloft:
HONK 4 PEACE
Kids getting off school buses stopped to watch the one-man protest. Moms came off their porches with hot chocolate. Every honk from a passing car felt like a chip out of a prison wall. A passer-by put the scene live on Facebook, where 611 people tuned in. Hours passed. Night fell. The December temperature dipped toward freezing.
Wright felt liberated.
“At least somebody knew I cared,” he recalled. “I do think it made a difference. When somebody sees a young black man trying to be positive, everyone gravitates toward that. Even if I reached one person that day and they would think, ‘Maybe I should chill. Maybe I shouldn’t shoot women.’
“Even if it touched that one somebody — that’s all I wanted.”
A wild child
Wright thinks often about his first encounter with police. He doesn’t remember it, but his mother, Charise, told him the story. She was on drugs and nodded off downtown. Three-year-old Dre’s stroller rolled into the street. He was grabbed by a passing cop and placed in foster care.
That inspired his mother to clean up her life for good — Charise became a prison counselor, social worker and devoted mother. Money was tighter than young Dre’s cornrowed hair, and she moved him and his older brother through more than a dozen apartments across Homewood, East Liberty, Garfield and the rest of the city’s black neighborhoods. Nowadays, Pittsburgh feels like a small town to Wright because he can hardly drive a mile in his patrol car without running into a familiar face. Except his father’s. Wright doesn’t know who he is.
Wright was a wild child, full of energy and what he now recognizes as anger. Football was a perfect outlet. He started at age 4 in the all-black City League, which has a different flavor from predominantly white leagues in other parts of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania. Players sport two differently colored socks, two-toned face masks, and back pads sagging below their jerseys. Outside the lines, there’s gambling, occasional arrests of coaches and, every few years, gunfire. Many parents choose to avoid the danger and play their boys elsewhere, which only increases the City League’s fierce pride.
Despite his small stature — Wright stands 5-foot-8 today — he terrorized other tykes as a runner, receiver and defensive destroyer. People still remember how he stiff-armed a defender into a backflip. “He was a monster,” said Melvin Lewis, a City League coach who grew up with Wright. “Fast, elusive, vicious, smart. Not too many like Dre. He’s something like a ’hood legend.”
That ’hood was no joke. At age 13, Wright saw a friend’s head shattered by a bullet. He was robbed at gunpoint and threatened with firearms numerous times. While a freshman at the Perry Traditional Academy, a public school across town on the North Side, Dre was so poor he wore the same outfit 30 days straight – black thermal crew neck, black Dickies, black Timberlands. His hair stayed in four thick, fuzzy braids. But Dre was also a cutup who made everybody laugh, according to Desmond Brentley, his best friend and quarterback of the football team.
The inseparable Des and Dre followed the ’hood rules for dealing with cops: “You don’t talk to them, you don’t deal with them,” Wright recalled. “When you see them, you leave. If you see them coming in that wagon, you run.”
The pair got pulled over while driving all the time. Wright didn’t consider it harassment — just the normal course of life, like hearing gunfire or getting robbed. Why dwell on the negative when there were touchdowns to score and girls to chase? Plus, he didn’t engage in criminal activity. So if the cops wanted to search him? Go right ahead.
“You’re usually not as upset if you’re not guilty,” Wright said.
He graduated in 2006, spent a year in prep school to raise his abysmal grades and signed to play football for Pitt. He had a promising first season, averaging 21 yards per kickoff return, and his time of 4.37 seconds in the 40-yard dash tabbed him as an NFL-level talent. But his role was reduced as a sophomore under a new offensive coordinator who liked big receivers. He moved to cornerback in spring practice and tore his ACL trying to toss a 300-pound lineman.
While rehabbing his injury, Wright interned with the Police Department. During a ride-along, his trainer responded to a call about a girl whose bracelet had been snatched. Despite instructions to watch from the car, Wright couldn’t help himself when the suspect was spotted — he jumped out and gave chase.
“As soon as we brought her stuff back,” Wright said, “it was like, I want to do this.”
Wright wasn’t healed enough to play his junior year. Afterward, the coaches said he was no longer in Pitt’s plans. He graduated in May 2011 with a degree in criminal justice, two years of eligibility remaining and an infant son with his college girlfriend. He accepted a scholarship offer from Division II Indiana University of Pennsylvania but left after a month, doubting that IUP could get him to the NFL and in need of money to support his son.
He spent the next year working as a security guard for $8.80 per hour and driving a school bus for $33 per trip. One day, he was assigned to pick up the football team at Perry, his alma mater. Coach Bill Gallagher boarded the bus, looked at his former star player and said, “Dre, what happened?”
“That was pain, right through the heart,” Wright said. He went home and Googled “how to become a police officer.”
Three years later, Wright was patrolling his old neighborhoods in Pittsburgh.
Showing we’re human
At first, he didn’t know how the ’hood would receive him. Every patrol and call brought a familiar face. Most of the response was positive. But sometimes, making an arrest, he would hear “Uncle Tom this and Uncle Tom that. I’m like, ‘Really?’ I don’t run from it, I try to explain it to them. ‘What else you want me to do? You know I played football, blew my knee out. What am I supposed to do now?’ ”
He realized his mere presence could help defuse tensions: “Let me get in the middle of it so I can bridge the gap in case it turns bad. I want to be able to calm the officer and assure him, and calm the subject.”
Then there were the foot chases.
“When I first got here, for some reason there was a spike in stolen cars. They would jump out and start running,” he said. “It was like a dog and a ball. When they try to run from me, you’re just like, ‘Oh, come on.’ You’re not chasing them to hurt them, you’re just chasing them like a sport.
“You’re running? OK, come on, let’s run!”
Still, each time he put on his uniform, he wondered whether he would make it home. He drew his weapon many times while responding to calls about armed suspects, although he has never pulled the trigger. He began to dream about being forced to shoot someone. Slowly, the dreams turned to nightmares.
After a year and a half on the 4 p.m. to midnight shift, he wanted more of a sense of normalcy. Wright got an assignment as a community resource officer in a racially and economically mixed group of neighborhoods. He attends community events, mediates neighborhood problems and backs up officers who respond to 911 calls.
“I hear something on the radio, I go. Ease the gap between black and white, between police and non-police. Show we’re human.”
His main goal is to show that he cares and that he wants to help. That starts with listening, really listening, to what a person has to say. Patience is one of his most useful tools. Another is assistance. That could mean explaining why someone is being arrested and how to bail him out. Other times, just being black and sympathetic helps. If things are already hostile, he might give both cop and citizen an avenue to back down.
“It’s love. Just spread love. Not many police rep it,” he said.
Why him? Wright goes back to the cop who grabbed his stroller out of the street, and how it changed his mother’s life: “You never know who that person is and how you can change their life just off of anything.”
It doesn’t have to get that dramatic for Wright to believe that’s he’s making a difference.
One December morning, Wright parked his cruiser near the blighted corner of North Homewood and Frankstown avenues. Walking past the barbershops and liquor stores, he received the same pounds and daps as at the football game. A toothless drug addict stopped Wright to ask about another cop who’d promised to get her to rehab. Wright pulled the officer’s number up on his phone and texted him. He listened to the addict ramble on for five minutes.
“People ask for me by name over here,” Wright said. “That’s all I need.”
Harassment or normal life?
Asked about Colin Kaepernick and NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, a protest that has torn apart America’s most popular sport, Wright stepped into his familiar place in the gap. But this tightrope isn’t so easily navigated with charm and goodwill.
“I commend Kaepernick. If that’s your thing, that’s your thing. If you feel like you should stand up for something, stand up for it,” Wright said — and then tried to balance the scales. “I don’t know him personally. I don’t know if it’s a legit angle from him. If he feels like he has a purpose, I respect him. It cost him his spot in the league, so I have to respect it.”
Kaepernick started the protests by citing police violence that left “bodies in the street.” That statement doesn’t sit well with Wright, although he won’t come out and say so. Killer cops don’t jibe with Wright’s three years of experience on the Pittsburgh force — there have only been two fatal police killings during that time, both of them of armed black men — or with his life lessons as a law-abiding youngster.
When Wright turns on his flashers, the camera in his police car is recording everything. If he detains or arrests someone, his report needs to include a solid reason for the stop. There may be a few bad apples, Wright says, but they should and will be held accountable.
His friends at the football game may complain about harassment. But Wright thinks back to his experience as a young man joyriding in his hooptie with his best friend Desmond, screaming out the windows at girls and blasting music through their crummy speakers. The way Wright remembers it, there was always some legal reason, however thin, for them to get pulled over. They missed a stop sign, or circled the block five times, or had beads hanging from their rearview mirror that technically could obstruct their vision. The cops were looking for guns, drugs and drunken drivers. None of that applied to them. Getting stopped wasn’t harassment. Just a normal part of life.
Today, Officer Wright asks how police are supposed to keep drugs and guns out of the black community if people object to legal stops. “If you can prove harassment, if you can prove police are doing the wrong thing, by all means handle your business. But if you’re just complaining because you got stopped and you didn’t get a ticket or there was nothing other than time lost — come on now.”
“Go to your legislator, representatives, speak out, [tell them] this is outrageous. And if he ain’t do nothing, go over his head.”
Speaking out is what Kaepernick and the NFL players are doing. But the chasm they have opened is so wide even Wright has trouble reaching across it.
‘I’m laying you down’
Wright was at his best friend Desmond Brentley’s house one Saturday, watching college football on the television in the kitchen. After high school, Brentley played quarterback at Grambling State and Robert Morris, and he now handles corpses as a city medical examiner. If you see Des and Dre at the same time, “it’s a real bad day for you,” Brentley said.
The childhood friends started talking about the arrest of Michael Bennett. The Seattle Seahawks defensive end had accused Las Vegas police of racial profiling and excessive force. After a report of shots fired, Bennett was tackled and handcuffed. He said the officer put a gun to his head while he was facedown and threatened to “blow my f—ing head off.”
Wright sided with the police. “There’s shots fired, it was a black male, black hoodie. If a black male in a black hoodie comes by, you’re going to put him on the ground — ”
“It wasn’t a black male in a black hoodie, though,” Brentley said. “It was just a casino, shots fired.”
“We don’t know what came on the radio,” Wright responded. “But if that happens, I will put you down. He said he was going to blow his head off. The only reason I think that would be necessary is because you’re running towards the fight and you’ve got to psych yourself up. … It’s going to turn into bolder language.”
“Everything you’re saying, you think that’s right or wrong?” Brentley asked.
Wright stood up.
“If there’s shots fired and somebody runs past, and I’m the fastest dude, I’m laying you down,” he said.
Wright didn’t want to vouch for the specific actions of the officer who arrested Bennett: “I don’t know the angle. I don’t know how far he was away from the shots fired.” What he wanted his childhood friend to understand was the emotion of a cop in that situation, and why he would threaten to kill a suspect.
“You have to understand that we’re supposed to run into the danger. That takes a certain mindset,” Wright said. He crouched in a stance, poised to burst off the line of scrimmage. “I had to rev myself up to take you down. You’re not a robot. You’ve got to talk yourself up to it, or it’s not going to happen. At that point, if you’ve got to kill that dude, that’s what you’re saying. That’s going to be the process in your head.”
Brentley, seated at the kitchen counter, asked Wright whether he had seen the video of Bennett’s arrest, when he was facedown and handcuffed. The video looked like excessive force to him.
“It was probably warranted,” Wright replied, still standing.
Later, Brentley said he tries to empathize with Wright’s descriptions of life as a cop.
“I still don’t know,” he said. “I still get scared by the cops, all these years later.”
Every four or five months, the nightmare returns.
Wright’s gun is in his hand. He says, “Stop! Stop! Stop!” The suspect ignores his commands. “And you’re screaming, you’re screaming, you’re screaming. And then, you just have to.”
Wright’s bullet hits the suspect.
“And you know at that point, your life is probably over, regardless if you’re right, wrong or indifferent. So it’s a nightmare.”
The nightmare nearly turned real one day last year. Wright was driving alone in his cruiser when a call came over the radio. Officers were pursuing robbery suspects on Fifth Avenue in the Oakland neighborhood. They were chasing a white Honda Civic with a broken window. The occupants were four black males, armed.
Wright joined the chase. Through East Liberty, up Negley Run Road, around the Hill District. Wright had been driving these streets his whole life. Every turn the suspects made, he knew where it led. Up in Oak Hill, the Honda crashed and the four people in the car jumped out and ran. Once again, the chase was on.
As he sprinted down the street, adrenaline surging, Wright thought about a local officer recently killed while responding to a domestic dispute.
He tripped one suspect, lay him down and kept running. His second target bent over. Wright wondered whether he was about to get shot. “I just dove. Boom. I tackled him.”
The suspect was a teenager, no more than 17. He didn’t have a pistol — just a BB gun.
“Ouch!” the kid said. “You hurt my shoulder!”
Relief flooded through Wright’s body, then heartache and disappointment at another young black life derailed.
At that moment, there was no gap to be bridged, nowhere to spread the love. Just a young cop trying to keep himself and his community alive.
Week 13 in the National Football League, at least since last season, is all about creativity, customization and cause. Through the “My Cause My Cleats” campaign, which the league started in 2016, players can bend uniform guidelines and wear cleats designed to represent a cause of their choice.
Typically, players are only allowed to wear custom-painted kicks during pregame warm-ups. Then switch to uniform footwear while the game clock is rolling. But in Week 13, flashy cleats in vibrant colors, featuring unique illustrations and messages, are the norm. Athletes all across the NFL, from every position group, commission the hottest designers in the sneaker game to create the perfect pair of cleats for their cause. This year, around 1,000 players reportedly took part in the initiative, and after games ended, select cleats were sold at auction, with 100 percent of the proceeds benefiting causes such as the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, Colin Kaepernick’s #KnowYourRightsCamp, Habitat for Humanity, autism, POW and MIA families, anti-bullying, social justice and criminal justice reform, the Trayvon Martin Foundation and more.
“This weekend, you’ll really see the impact art has had on the NFL,” Los Angeles artist Troy Cole, aka Kickasso, tweeted before Sunday’s games. Last season, he designed every pair of New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.’s anticipated pregame cleats. “Art is a powerful way to tell a story #MyCauseMyCleats.”
Here are The Undefeated’s top 24 “My Cause My Cleats” customs, along with the players who wore them, the causes they supported and the artistic geniuses who brought charitable creativity to life.
Chidobe Awuzie, Cornerback, Dallas Cowboys
In 2014, 276 girls were kidnapped in Nigeria.. 2017 & more than 100 still in captivity. In Africa, issues rarely get attention or resolved. W Libya slave trade going on and girls still missing, I wanted to bring awareness & honor efforts for change in Africa. #MyCauseMyCleats pic.twitter.com/py4HrI7IDt
— Chido (@ChidobeAwuzie) December 1, 2017
Cause: #BringBackOurGirls campaign
Joe Barksdale, Offensive Tackle, Los Angeles Chargers
Cause: Fender Music Foundation
Designer: DeJesus Custom Footwear Inc.
Michael Bennett, Defensive End, Seattle Seahawks
— Michael Bennett (@mosesbread72) November 28, 2017
A.J. Bouye, Cornerback, Jacksonville Jaguars
At an early age, @AJBOUYE21 lost his mother to cancer.
— #Sacksonville (@Jaguars) November 28, 2017
Cause: American Cancer Society
Antonio Brown, Wide Receiver, Pittsburgh Steelers
Designer: Corey Pane
Kurt Coleman, Safety, Carolina Panthers
— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) November 28, 2017
Meet the kid designers behind Kurt Coleman's #MyCauseMyCleats
— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) December 1, 2017
Cause: Levine Children’s Hospital
Designer: Ryan Bare, SR Customs
Mike Daniels, defensive end, Green Bay Packers
A lot of kids experience being bullied; with #MyCauseMyCleats I want to raise more awareness on this issue. I'm asking you all to join me in putting an end to bullying!#GoPackGo pic.twitter.com/JsXpjysPQU
— Mike Daniels (@Mike_Daniels76) November 28, 2017
— Green Bay Packers (@packers) December 2, 2017
Stefon Diggs, Wide Receiver, Minnesota Vikings
— Minnesota Vikings (@Vikings) December 1, 2017
Cause: American Heart Association
Designer: Mache Customs
DeSean Jackson, Wide Receiver, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Cause: Brotherhood Crusade
Malcolm Jenkins, Safety, Philadelphia Eagles
— Malcolm Jenkins (@MalcolmJenkins) November 28, 2017
Cause: Social Justice and Criminal Justice Reform, Players Coalition
Eddie Lacy, Running Back, Seattle Seahawks
National disasters leave families homeless, helpless, hopeless & in poverty. I’ve been there & it’s not fun. It took us yrs to rebuild from Hurricane Katrina & that’s why Sunday, I’m rocking my cleats for the millions fighting to restore & rebuild #MyCauseMyCleats #GivingTuesday pic.twitter.com/4NQnH5ItUY
— Eddie Lacy (@Lil_Eazy_Ana_42) November 28, 2017
Cause: International Relief Teams, Hurricane Katrina
Designer: Bizon Customs
Jarvis Landry, Wide Receiver, Miami Dolphins
Cause: Cystic Fibrosis Foundation
Marshon Lattimore, Cornerback, New Orleans Saints
— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) December 1, 2017
Cause: Social injustices and honoring close friend Dayton Williams, who was shot and killed in 2010 in Euclid, Ohio.
Rishard Matthews, Wide Receiver, Tennessee Titans
Cause: Colin Kaepernick, Know Your Rights Camp
Gerald McCoy, Defensive Tackle, Tampa Bay buccaneers
Cause: “The Life of a Single Mom”
Designer: The Hulfish Project
Eric Reid, Safety, San Francisco 49ers
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) December 2, 2017
Repost @e_reid35 – Can’t wait to rock my cleats supporting @kaepernick7’s @yourrightscamp! Each emoji represents a topic covered in his camp to educate youth from marginalized communities. #MyCauseMyCleats
Gavel = Legal Rights When… https://t.co/x4YCUDz9ai pic.twitter.com/vB27pyJaEj
— KnowYourRightsCamp (@yourrightscamp) December 1, 2017
Cause: Colin Kaepernick, Know Your Rights Camp
Designer: Tragik MCMXCIII
A’shawn Robinson, Defensive Tackle, Detroit Lions
Proud to wear these for #MyCauseMyCleats on Sunday to help raise awareness for Leukemia and Down Syndrome. Let’s all work together to lend a helping hand where we can! #OnePride pic.twitter.com/lRAbIZh60n
— Ashawn Robinson (@AshawnRobinson) December 2, 2017
: In support of Leukemia patients pic.twitter.com/dAsD6zLfsq
— Detroit Lions (@Lions) December 2, 2017
Cause: Leukemia patients
Jaylon Smith, Linebacker, Dallas Cowboys
— Jaylon Smith (@thejaylonsmith) November 28, 2017
Designer: The Hulfish Project
Torrey Smith, Wide Receiver, Philadelphia Eagles
Shane Vereen, Running Back, New York Giants
— New York Giants (@Giants) December 3, 2017
Anthony Walker, Linebacker, Indianapolis Colts
— Anthony Walker Jr. (@__AWalkJr) November 29, 2017
Cause: Trayvon Martin Foundation
Designer: Desmond J. Jones, Art is Dope
Deshaun Watson, Quarterback, Houston Texans
— Houston Texans (@HoustonTexans) December 2, 2017
Cause: Habitat for Humanity
Designer: 5-year-old twins Kayla and Jakwan; Evan Melnyk, Nike
Russell Wilson, Quarterback, Seattle Seahawks
— Russell Wilson (@DangeRussWilson) November 28, 2017
— Seattle Seahawks (@Seahawks) December 2, 2017
Cause: Why Not You Foundation
Designer: Kate Neckel and Dash Tsai
Daryl Worley, Cornerback, Carolina Panthers
Designer: SR Customs
Few people on the planet are as funny as comedian Tommy Davidson. But when Davidson decided to learn about his heritage, it was no laughing matter. He had questions and wanted answers. African Ancestry Inc. provided them.
A leader in the field of genetic ancestry tracing, AfricanAncestry.com followed Davidson’s roots to Africa. Through DNA testing, he discovered he’s a descendant of the Mende people of Sierra Leone. The information provided a sense of belonging that Davidson previously lacked. Many African-Americans can relate.
“Because of the slave trade, we never really had the inner sovereign feeling of home,” said the celebrity, who rose to fame on the groundbreaking 1990s sketch-comedy show, In Living Color. “We never had that same feeling that Europeans, Asians, other people who came here [to the United States], have experienced in their lifetimes. Getting the information, man, it was significant for me.”
That’s what AfricanAncestry.com likes to hear.
Founded in 2003 by Dr. Rick Kittles and Gina Paige, the Silver Spring, Maryland-based company pioneered the science for determining the genealogy of people of color across the world. Other genealogy companies, obviously, are capable of tracing roots as well, but “we’re able to be more specific because we have a larger database of African lineage,” Paige said. That’s the reason in a nutshell.
“And we have a larger database of African regions because we are specifically in business to help black people understand where they’re from and who they are. That’s our sole focus. We are not in business to give you health traits or genetic traits. We are not in business to tell you who you’re related to and who your seventh, eighth and ninth cousins are. We’re in business for a very specific reason.”
A swab from the inside of a person’s cheek is all that’s needed for testing.
Based on which test is purchased, AfricanAncestry.com analyzes either mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) inherited from a person’s mother, the Y chromosome that men inherit from their fathers or autosomal DNA from both parents.
Through the analysis, markers or mutations indicate where ancestry is found. If genes indicate that a person is from Africa, the company compares those genes to what it describes as the world’s largest database of African lineages. AfricanAncestry.com is then able to specify the present-day African country and ethnic group with which the person shares maternal and paternal ancestry.
Once a sample is provided, the process takes about eight weeks to complete.
Seattle Seahawks learned the results of his testing last week. On his mother’s side, Michael Bennett descends from the Mandinka people in Senegal and, like Davidson, the Mende people in Sierra Leone. His father’s folk come from the Bubi people of Bioko Island in Equatorial Guinea.
AfricanAncestry.com also has provided DNA testing for the PBS television show, Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr. The company did all the testing for African-American guests during the first two seasons. AfricanAncestry.com informed Davidson that he’s a descendant of proud fighters.
The Mende were aboard the Amistad, the ship on which a slave revolt occurred in 1839. The story became widely known because of the 1997 Steven Spielberg-directed movie starring Djimon Hounsou and Morgan Freeman.
“It really is something,” Davidson said. “Just to find that link to things because of what happened in slavery. Just the psychological effect that that’s probably had on us. It’s real.”
AfricanAncestry.com’s employees take pride in bridging the gap for black folks.
“I’ve seen the impact that [testing] has had on people across all walks of life, across all professions, across all interests, across all different beliefs,” Paige said. “There’s something sobering and also humbling about having the ability to provide people with this information. Not everyone can do it. We’re the only ones who can do it. That’s heavy.”
White Privilege: (noun). The fact of people with white skin having advantages in society that other people do not have.
Monday afternoon in downtown Washington, D.C., and every one of the overhead office televisions is leading with NFL franchises responding to the 45th president of the United States, who called anthem-protesting players “sons of bitches” last week and implored owners to tell these kneeling men, reality TV-style, “You’re fired!”
Then Gregg Popovich’s cloudy-white visage filled the screen, making me feel like crap.
“We still have no clue of what being born white means,” the coach of the San Antonio Spurs said in the middle of a three-minute, Check Your Privilege, Mr. President, scolding. “It’s like you’re at the 50-meter mark in a 100-meter dash. And you’ve got that kind of a lead because, yes, you were born white. You have advantages that are systemically, culturally, psychologically there. And they have been built up and cemented for hundreds of years.”
My colleagues, almost all of whom are black, nodded approvingly because Pop “gets it,” and some vowed to become Spurs fans simply because of his comments. I did the same.
But I also had this pang gnawing at me all day and into the night.
The truth: Many well-intentioned white people I know lose their minds when they hear about their “white privilege.” It’s not that we haven’t acknowledged our ancestors’ original sin — the dehumanization of a people, manifested in tragically being able to call another human being “property.” We have.
But fully accepting that the color of our skin benefits us today is often too much to unpack.
When we hear, “Check your privilege,” we feel ostracized from the people we thought shared the common purpose of equality with us. Further, if we are directly confronting racism in our online and physical worlds, we don’t want to hear, “Thanks, but there is no extra credit for doing what is right.”
We want an impossible validation: to be told that, unlike those Confederate-lovin’ nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, we don’t have white privilege.
And that gets to dissecting the meaning of privilege — separating the feelings of personal slight from a systemic inequity. Which is flat-out hard. We either a) don’t believe it; b) don’t think we are participants in it; or c) will engage to a point but ultimately decide, “I’m sorry, I don’t share this outlook on the world.”
It was only after hearing Popovich that I realized that we who continue to bullheadedly think that way represent a real obstacle toward achieving this elusive better place we always talk about.
Look, this isn’t something Colin Kaepernick or Michael Bennett can fix alone, just as Tommie Smith and John Carlos couldn’t fix it in 1968. This isn’t something any person of color can change by himself.
This is a difficult white-person-to-white-person conversation that has to happen between white men and women of all classes for any lasting change to occur. Black and brown people already know this. It’s not news to them that we have advantages bestowed at birth that they don’t.
If you can’t accept that white people have it easier, then you will never accept why someone would kneel during the national anthem. And until those two are reconciled, we shouldn’t expect people to stand — especially those most adversely affected by society’s unfair constructs.
The display of unity on Sunday, with some NFL owners linking arms with their players, was indeed an act of togetherness. But it was in response to the president crudely calling out their employees — not black men being killed by police. They were standing up for the NFL, not human rights. If Sunday was it, all they did was participate in a photo op that made everyone feel good.
We don’t need to feel good right now; we need to feel uncomfortable.
It’s a process. For one, hearing we have “white privilege” feels like it carries a stigma, as if we have been branded “racist” and don’t know why. It’s almost like a virus one needs to be inoculated from at a CVS pharmacy each fall.
But, of course, it doesn’t work like that. We don’t have a disease — society does.
Author and consultant Frances E. Kendall’s 2002 essay Understanding White Privilege put it this way: “For me, the confusion and pain of this knowledge is somewhat eased by reminding myself that this system is not based on each individual white person’s intention to harm but on our racial group’s determination to preserve what we believe is rightly ours. This distinction is, on one hand, important, and, on the other hand, not important at all because, regardless of personal intent, the impact is the same.”
In other words, hearing you have “white privilege” shouldn’t carry an ounce of baggage, even if the language feels accusatory. I know it took me a while to get there.
I have, for much of my life, failed to acknowledge that privilege. I rationalized that I did not have it because my papa-was-a-rolling-stone father moved us to a rural area of Hawaii when I was 12 — and I faced ugly prejudice for being white. (Everyone, by the way, should be on the other side of the fence at least once in their life to see what it’s like.) Given my own life circumstances, I reasoned it didn’t apply to me, that my own broken-home, abusive childhood didn’t involve any suburban cul-de-sacs or regular visits to the dentist, so what do I know about privilege?
But when you begin to think deeply about your own life experiences compared with your friends of color, it’s harder to dismiss.
I’ve never had to educate my young sons to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection, to warn them of law enforcement officers who might not give them the benefit of the doubt.
I’ve never applied for a home loan and suspected that I was turned down because some of my prospective neighbors only want to live next to and around people who look and think like them.
Privilege is when a deranged racist murders multiple black worshippers at a church Bible study and, upon seeing the race of the individual who did it, you did not have to say to your friend, “Damn, now they’re going to think all of us white folk are racist killers.”
The biggest benefit of being white: Our problems are far less likely to be attributed to some racial/cultural failure. Our government will hear our cries and not tell us to get over it but rather, in point of fact, ask us how it can help (even if the help doesn’t always come).
If Popovich is honest, white privilege is what allows him to make those statements in the first place. Meanwhile, coach Mike Tomlin, who’s never had a losing season, has been to two Super Bowls, won one and has guided the Pittsburgh Steelers to more wins the past decade than any team except the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots, is walking a tightrope at this minute, trying to keep his protest-torn team together while not being shunned by his boss and the team’s customers.
“People get bored. ‘Oh, is it that again? They’re pulling the race card again, why do we have to talk about that again?’ ” Popovich said. “Well, it’s because it’s uncomfortable and there has to be an uncomfortable element in the discourse for anything to change. People have to be made to feel uncomfortable, and especially white people — because we are comfortable.”
I don’t like hearing this. It forces me to confront truths I don’t necessarily want to accept, because I don’t remember any breaks given me or job opportunities offered because of my complexion. But I’d be in denial to not believe that in numerous situations my race has helped me — in ways I never even notice.
Popovich’s statements are a piece of a conversation between white people that needs to happen more frequently. Whether there are enough people who look like me willing to engage in that conversation is an open question.
At least this week, though, his gruffness and often-annoying certainty about everything turned out to be good for more than just lighting a fire under Tim Duncan’s tush:
“Many people can’t look at it because it’s too difficult. It can’t be something that is on their plate on a daily basis,” he said. “People want to hold their position. People want the status quo. People don’t want to give that up. And until it’s given up, it’s not going to be fixed.”
Anyone else white want to take a stab at it? It’s the only way the work of everyone from Muhammad Ali to Colin Kaepernick will ever get done.